Sex 2.0: Popcorn Lust

The movies have finally grown up about sex. As in, about sex for grown-ups. In the past few years, we have seen a wave of films (often involving Meryl Streep, stunning at 63) dealing with intimacy in the pop culturally uncharted nether regions of middle age. In recognition of their power to put bums in seats, we are getting mature subject matter for the mature set. But the new, sexier image of older lovers onscreen has farther-reaching societal implications than for just the characters getting it on.

To wit, the cheeky 2009 flick It’s Complicated, with Streep and Alec Baldwin, which depicts the actors as a long-divorced couple indulging in an affair (in role reversal of husband cheating on young, hot second wife with older first wife), complete with hotel-room nooners. Last summer’s Streep vehicle Hope Springs featured her as a shy Midwestern housewife in intensive couples’ counselling with her accountant hubbie, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who cuts a dashing if craggy figure at 66. The movie’s climax is, well, the characters in climax after they burn through a lot of matchbooks trying to reignite their spark. And in the deft and touching 2010 film Beginners, Christopher Plummer plays a widower who is finally free to explore an openly gay lifestyle; the remarkable part is seeing this blossoming through his son’s eyes.

The importance of support from the popcorn gallery to introduce the idea that humans remain sexual beings their entire lives cannot be overstated. Film and television dramas are the way we tell ourselves about our lives and, until recently, a raspy Hepburn-Fonda On Golden Pond-style of kiss on the cheek was all the on-screen action this age group was getting.

I suspect the very late breaking of this taboo has to do with the ickiest thing in the world: imagining one’s own parents having sex. This idea takes hold when you are young yourself and never really leaves. Everyone who is not your parent but is of a mature age becomes collateral damage.

My friend Samuel recently came back from his widower dad’s second wedding (the bride was 55, the groom 72, the prenup ironclad) in the land of the early-bird special. At 48 himself, Samuel covered his ears with his hands, clamped his eyes shut and sang some Metallica to blast the image of that wedding night out of his head. But when I asked him if he was planning to hang up his own conjugal spurs when his odometer rolled over 70, he looked outraged. Do as I say, not as I do.

Truth is everyone is doing it. Notwithstanding unhappy marriages with desert-sized droughts or abstinence by preference and inspite of ED as Bob Dole referred to erectile dysfunction (there is a little blue app for that) and the lack of vaginal lubrication associated with menopause (hope comes here in a tube), people do not stop having sex at any age. The legendary Kinsey report had married couples engaging in once-a-week intercourse into their 70s. A 2007 University of Chicago survey done under the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project deals more with participation rates than frequency, citing 73 per cent of 57- to 64-year-olds getting it on; this falls to 53 per cent in the 65 to 74 zone and then to 26 per cent as measured up to age 85.

Of course, literature has long been exploring mature sexuality, as older readers look to insightful representation of their experiences from the privacy of their own homes. It is the racy older male writers whose characters tend to quicken with sexual pulse: think 64-year-old Ian McEwan’s raunchy, paunchy, cheating scientist murderer senior in Solar or 80-year-old Philip Roth, who writes sex in great gulping lusts, often exploring wildly inappropriate fantasies like hair-pulling septuagenarian blow jobs with hot young things. Canada’s own master of the short story Alice Munro, now into her 80s, still writes sex, but her libidinous characters are often clawing backward through time.

Now that we are lapping at the fringes of a cultural watershed, Viagra jokes are giving way to parody: this past fall’s Internet sensation was the You Tube video posting, with hits in the millions. With deliberately awkward (fully clothed) kooky couplings, it is Monty Python meets Hee Haw. But the organization behind the traffic-driver of a video is a serious one, with a real information and advocacy underpinning. Laughter is the first stage of a larger ideological shift. As the generation that brought us free love goes grey, they are stripping off the brown paper wrapper of out-moded taboos.